Mothers Daughters Virgins Whores
Sin Eaters. Outsiders to the community who ingested a piece of bread laid on the breastbone of a corpse. Bread ritually infused with the sins of the dead, eaten to expiate the sins of the deceased which are taken on by the Sin Eater. This pagan/Christian metaphor forms the basis for ANU Productions latest work “The Sin Eaters.” A work that is scarily brilliant at times, and just plain scary at others. Even if it stumbles in places, “The Sin Eaters” is fiercely unapologetic, unrelenting and unforgiving. An ambitious and brave, immersive, site specific experience, "The Sin Eaters" sets out to hold the Irish State accountable for the manner in which the Irish Constitution has forced women to endure unbelievable horrors in the name of the family. Indeed, talk of “The Sin Eaters” being an interrogation of the family is somewhat misleading. “The Sin Eaters” is strictly an interrogation of the role of women within the family, and of the responsibility placed on women by the State. Of how the State's unquestioned notion of family has come to rob women of the right to control over their own bodies. Up to, and beyond, the point of death. Something State interference has enforced countless times, both directly and implicitly.
Entering the old chemical factory near the Pigeon House Towers feels like entering the first gate of hell. A wall, decorated with backlit images of the Virgin Mary, firmly introduces “The Sin Eaters’” religious connotations, as well as linking the Church to the State in the uneven inquiry that follows. Further gates open the deeper and darker you go. A brief tribunal, if a little confusing and unclear in places, sets up the parameters of what is to follow as well as asking if another tribunal is not just another waste of time. A young woman, with coffins full of earth from sites where women have undergone unimaginable horrors, asks if soil holds trauma and memory as she dances through the earth, strangely suggestive of dancing on the very traumas she wants us to remember. Further on, a mother nails her daughter to the table and the subsequent inquiry, conducted over a friendly cup of tea, seeks out the real culprit behind the act. A narrow room of files, recording cases and judgments housed in coffin-like drawers, lead to interrogations where female victims must defend themselves. A hospital bed, a room with surgical references, and the Pigeon House Towers, where long ago the B&I slipped out by the North Wall, leaving and returning with women seeking abortions, tell you nothing has changed as newer, larger boats, carrying even more women, undertake the very same journey today.
While “The Sin Eaters” continues ANU’s tradition of site-specific immersive theatre undertaking historic and political interrogations, artistically it’s a significant departure for director Louise Lowe. Where previous works were usually defined by a historic specificity in time and place, history and location here cover a wide variety of places and periods. Similarly, where previous productions usually presented specific stories affecting specific characters in specific circumstances whom you undertook journeys with, characters here are barely sketched beyond their abstracted designations of mother, daughter, virgin, and whore, the people constituting them barely fleeting glimpses that disappear in an instant. Indeed, at times it feels as if the actors themselves are more potent and present than the characters or roles they play, due in no small measure to a series of soul stirringly powerful performances by an all female cast. If these shifts seem subtle on paper, they’re actually quite profound in practice, feeling, at times, like discovering your favorite, descriptive novelist is suddenly transitioning to abstract poetry.
Thematically and textually, “The Sin Eaters” has so much to offer, yet sometimes it stumbles beneath the burden of its own sense of responsibility. It's not that “The Sin Eaters” doesn't know what it wants to say, it’s more that it seems to have so much it needs to say. Yet discussion is often “The Sin Eaters” Achilles heel, for its real power lies in its imagery. Indeed, its poetry is far more potent than its efforts to investigate. A young girl laughing hysterically on her chair poised to topple, or a woman trapped beneath a chair she used to defend her daughters, say far more, and speak far more powerful, than all the tribunals ever could. Yet the unpredictable and equally provocative possibilities such images evoke are often restricted by the words that follow. If, at times, “The Sin Eaters" can feel like an exquisite visual poem, full of power and potency, it’s one, quite often, with too many footnotes, as if trying to explain or contextualize it all for fear we’ll miss the intended meaning.
If thematically and textually “The Sin Eaters” feels unsteady at times, theatrically it is near flawless. Owen Boss once again shows why he has become synonymous with excellence in set deign, an abstracted and often horrifying landscape brilliantly evoked. Lighting designer, Paul Keoghan, shows meticulous attention to detail, from haunting dark corners to excruciatingly bright hospital lights, even allowing the audience a say on how to light a scene. Carl Kennedy’s sound design is wonderfully evocative, richly informed by the shouts, bangs and howls from a uniquely powerful ensemble heard on the periphery.
Across the board, performances are top notch. Throughout, Neili Conroy delivers a reined in, powerhouse performance, whose sense of the ordinary is extraordinarily evocative. Katie Honan, part maniacal, part hysterically, part channeling forces far beyond her small frame, is utterly outstanding. As is Una Kavanagh, who’s expressive range is simply astonishing, her face, voice and gestures revealing every conceivable possibility during each syllable. Niamh McCann is stunning, capturing the harrowing and heartfelt depths in the most ordinary of moments. Amy McElhatton is a force of nature, a relentless whirlwind utterly compelling throughout. Rachel O’Byrne, part Grand Inquisitor, part voice of unreasonable reason, is simply superb. As is Emma O’Kane, her stunning physical vocabulary far richer than any words. Magnetic and compelling, O'Kane, whether with her mouth stuffed with a Wonder Woman apron, or resisting entering a room she does not want to go in to, is soul stirring powerful. A brief projection sequence by Amanda Coogan goes straight to the heart of “The Sin Eaters” with beautiful directness and simplicity. Contributions from Reidin Dunne and Michelle Reade prove utterly invaluable in rounding out this stellar ensemble.
Disturbing, disconcerting, yet deeply moving, “The Sin Eaters” seeks to compel a constitutional earthquake making it very much of its time. Yet it can sometimes ask a little too much of its audience in places. Never clearly framing the historical stories it wants them to engage with can be a problem for those visiting from abroad, or those who have forgotten, or where not yet born at the time many incidents took place. This often creates a disconnect between the history and its abstraction, between ideas and images. Yet images take the day. O'Kane standing with her mouth stuffed, a daughter being nailed to the table, a mother raising a chair to defend her children evoke far more visceral responses than words ever can. Responses which say let the dead bury their own dead. Let the sinners eat of their own sins. We will have with it no more.
Ralph Waldo Emerson talks of the stuttering and stammering required to get the words out. There’s something of Emerson’s stuttering and stammering in “The Sin Eaters,” of struggling to find a new form to give expression to the immeasurable. Yet nothing can contain the sea, and “The Sin Eaters” arises from a sea of tears. Indeed, there’s a palpable sense of the blood, sweat, and tears of a deeply personal investment to “The Sin Eaters” made by cast, crew, and director, who have obviously dug deep and kept on digging. The result, if not always clear, is unrelentingly powerful. A cry seeking articulation, a shout flung into the night, a howl of rage and pain sent into the un-listening void, “The Sin Eaters” is a rallying call saying, ‘this far and no further.' Yet, in the end, “The Sin Eaters” is less of a statement, and more of a scream. A scream so primal, so powerful, and so deeply felt, it will break your heart wide open.
“The Sin Eaters” by ANU Productions runs at Pigeon House Lab, Poolbeg as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2017 until October 15th
For more information, visit ANU Productions or Dublin Theatre Festival 2017